Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Staying Fit with a Toddler: Playground and Trail Combos

Enjoying a morning run on the trails
at Shoreline Lake Park

Ah, to-do lists. This post has been on my personal list for about 8 months now, ever since I began volunteering with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Moms in Training program last March, with much of my responsibility being identifying places where we could combine a workout with play time for the kids. I've trained for 11 half marathons and one full on the trails of the South Bay, but all but one of those races were pre-Toddler X -- although I knew of great places to run or walk, I had never really thought about the intersection of parent fitness and toddler play.

Since March, though, I've really been on the lookout for places along local trails where a parent could pull over and let a wiggly toddler out of a stroller for some play time. For most of these workouts, you can start and end at a playground (allowing for pre-workout toddler energy burning, and the promise of a post-workout play session), or start elsewhere and make the playground a mid-workout distraction. Other options are just loops, where the playground is never more than a few hundred yards away. Frankly, with Toddler X, these are often my best bets.

Running under the oaks (in pajamas)
at Gudalupe Oak Grove Park
I'm sure there are dozens of great trail/playground combos I'm missing, but here are some that I've enjoyed.

1. The Los Gatos Creek Trail and Oak Meadow, Vasona and/or Campbell Park playgrounds (Los Gatos/Campbell)

The Los Gatos Creek trail begins at Lexington Reservoir and extends along Los Gatos Creek all the way to Willow Glen. I believe it's 9 miles, end to end, and amazingly Mr. X runs the whole thing once a week. I, on the other hand, like the trail in small chunks and when walking or jogging with Toddler X, I like those small chunks to include a playground.

Fortunately, there are several playgrounds to choose from along the length of the trail, and several places you can park your car to tailor the distance you'd like to run or walk to the playground you'd like to visit. From south to north, the playgrounds along the trail include Oak Meadow Park (a slight detour off the trail at the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad bridge in Vasona Park), the Vasona Park playground itself, and about 4 miles down the path, the playground at Campbell Park. I have several parking options I want to share, but they'll involve hunting down street names, and I'd rather just get this posted asap (like I said, it's been on my to-do list for 8 months), and then fill in the details later.

The Los Gatos Creek trail is where I've logged the vast majority of my miles over the past 5 years, and it's a gem for the active folks of the South Bay. Having a toddler with playground needs just makes me appreciate it more.

2. The Shoreline trails and the Shoreline Lake Park playground (Mountain View)

One of the most beautiful (and flat) places to run in the South Bay is the massive and diverse trail system alongside the bay at Shoreline. I don't even know where all the trails start and end -- I've done a 10 mile run here, and didn't even begin to cover everything. What I do know is that there are great trails of various surfaces -- paved, gravel and dirt -- and lots of scenery and wildlife to entertain toddlers (though not much in terms of shade). 

But what really makes it a toddler-friendly workout locale is the ship-shaped playground at Shoreline Lake. Located just around the curve of the lake from the boathouse (which is the parking lot we like to use), the big wooden ship is a great spot to let a toddler burn off some steam before or after a run or walk. (I'll link to my review of the playground as soon as I have more time.) From the boathouse parking lot, I usually take an upper path away from the ship so that Toddler X doesn't see it (and therefore demand it) on the way out -- when he gets too wiggly to ride anymore, it's conveniently right there on our way back.

As with the Los Gatos Creek Trail, there are a dozen places you can park to tailor the distance of your run/walk to the play structure to your specific workout needs, but here there are also lots of loops and trails you can take to extend or shorten a workout, or just change the scenery from day to day.

3. The Los Alamitos Trail and the Almaden Lake Park and/or Greystone Park playgrounds (San Jose/Almaden)

Another great trail for local runners and walkers is the Los Alamitos Trail that heads south down Los Alamitos Creek from Almaden Lake Park (Almaden Lake Park also has a trail that follows the perimeter of the lake itself, but the extension down Los Alamitos Creek is much nicer, in my opinion). The available playgrounds there are obviously the Almaden Lake Park playground, but also one of our very favorites -- Greystone Park. There is access to the trail, and even a little parking lot, via Camden Avenue, just a short distance up the road from Greystone. You can also park in the Almaden Lake Park lots (free if you have a Happy Hollow parking pass), or on Winfield Avenue on the eastern side of the lake.

The Los Alamitos Trail actually extends through several other parks if you continue towards the south, but I've never been to those, so I can't say they're favorites. I'd love to hear feedback if others have tried those parks out.

Setting out for a run around the lake
at Hellyer County Park in San Jose
(his first race!)
4. The Coyote Creek Trail and the Hellyer County Park and/or Shady Oaks Park playgrounds (South San Jose)

I hadn't run much in this southern part of San Jose until this past Moms in Training season, when we trained for the Monster Dash race, which started at Hellyer County Park and continued south along the Coyote Creek Trail. It actually turned out to be one of my favorite running/walking spots, with very pleasant scenery and lots of shade from big oak trees.

Although I haven't actually visited the playground at Hellyer County Park, Mr. X took Toddler X there while I was running the race and reported that it was "fine" (this is why I'm the one who writes playground reviews, not him). It looked nice enough from a distance. Further down on the trail, I've passed the entrance to Shady Oaks Park several times, and haven't yet crossed over to visit it, but I've heard at least one favorable report from a reader, so it's definitely on my to-do list.

Anyhow, this is a very pleasant, relatively flat paved trail, with various parking options along its length (most are free -- if you actually park within Hellyer County Park, there's a parking fee). Definitely worth checking out if you are seeking a change from the LG Creek Trail.

5. Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, the nearby greenway, and the Fontana Park playground (San Jose/Almaden)

Another great option in the Almaden area is the combination of Jeffrey Fontana Park and the Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, a large, relatively unknown natural area filled with trails, trees, hills and deer. One of the entrances to Guadalupe Oak Grove is literally feet from the play structures at Fontana, so it's an easy combination trip. If you're traveling with a stroller, it's probably best not to attempt the hills -- some get pretty steep, and we discovered, after huffing and puffing our way up one, that the only real way down was via non-stroller-friendly stairs. If you're wearing a carrier, you have a few more options, but even with a stroller, the trails are very peaceful and pretty, though you might have to do a few loops to get your distance in.

Another option, just outside Guadalupe Oak Grove, is the long greenway on which Fontana Park is situated. The greenway extends from Almaden Expressway to Coleman Road, with paved paths where I see a lot of older people walking, as well as dogs heading to/from the Fontana Dog Park. The greenway is located right under the electric lines, so if a mild buzzing sound bothers you, this may not be your favorite workout.

6. The Guadalupe River Trail and Thamien Park playground (Santa Clara)

This was another combo that I hadn't tried until this past Moms in Training season, and now it's one that I really like, primarily because I like the Thamien Park playground a lot. The park is located right by the Rivermark shopping area in Santa Clara, and at the corner of the park is an entrance to the Guadalupe River Trail. The trail is a nicely paved one, situated on top of a levee-like hill, with the Guadalupe River on one side and the back fences of office parks on the other. The scenery isn't as pleasant as other parks, and there's no shade to speak of, but it's nicely paved, very flat, and has a great playground at the start/finish.

The playground only has 5 parking spaces, but there is ample street parking down the road and across the street.

Enjoying a trail in the shade at
Baylands in Sunnyvale (note that most
Baylands trails are not shady)
7. The Sunnyvale Baylands trails and playgrounds (Sunnyvale)

I visited Baylands Park in Sunnyvale on my readers' recommendations this summer and really liked it. The setting was so nice, and the trails looked delightful. I didn't set out on my own with Toddler X, but I saw a lot of office workers out for lunchtime strolls, and I keep planning to get back there for a workout of my own. With respect to the playgrounds, there are two -- the main one, basically straight ahead as you enter, is lots of fun and very challenging for older toddlers, but distinctly not what I'd call "toddler-friendly." The other playground, which is toddler friendly and lots of fun, can be found near the end of the large lawn where people fly model airplanes -- you can get there by car by turning right after you enter the park and following the road along until it ends. Get some play time in there, then set out for a nice walk or jog around the park.

8. The San Jose Municipal Rose Garden and Hester Park playground (San Jose/Rose Garden)

This is one of our neighborhood parks, and probably the workout/play combination I've done the most frequently with Toddler X. The perimeter of the Rose Garden is almost a perfect 1/2 mile loop -- if you stay on the sidewalk, it's obviously a bit longer than if you run on the dirt/grass paths on the inner loop. There are always lots of runners and walkers here, and it's one place I feel very comfortable working out on my own, even with headphones on. If you do decide to run on the dirt loop with a running stroller, be sure to lock the front wheel -- there are occasional "potholes" that can send a BOB flying if you're not paying attention. Also pay attention to the quality of the dirt -- the grass can get very muddy after a watering, and I've come home with some disgustingly caked stroller tires and shoes.

Before or after the run, you can cross the street at the light on the corner of Naglee and Dana, and next door to the Rose Garden Branch Library, you'll find the small but pleasant (and fully-fenced) Hester Park.

9. The River Glen Park trail and playground (San Jose/Willow Glen)

This and Houge Park (next) are two great workout options for moms who don't feel comfortable setting out down a more secluded trail alone with a toddler (I'm one of those moms). River Glen has a packed dirt path around its perimeter (outside the fence) that is a perfect 1/2 mile long -- while you may have to run/walk a number of laps to get your workout in, you're also always within 100 yards of the playgrounds and the restrooms, which are a big plus with a toddler. The path is pretty well-maintained and easy to manage with any stroller, with the one big negative being those little ball things that fall from the trees in certain seasons, which can be a big ankle-twisting hazard. 

The River Glen playgrounds -- both the fenced toddler area and the big kid structure -- are some of my favorites, and overall its a great park. There are occasionally homeless people at the park, so if that makes you uncomfortable, you may want to come only during busy mid-day hours.

10. The Houge Park trail and playground (San Jose/Cambrian)

This is a huge winner in the parent-friendly workout division. There is a packed dirt trail that extends around the perimeter of Houge Park which -- if you stay on the dirt the entire time and don't divert onto the sidewalk at any point -- comes out to almost a perfect half mile. The track is inside the park itself (as opposed to River Glen's, which goes around the perimeter outside the fence) and circles the large central lawn and the big kid playground. Houge Park's playgrounds are favorites of ours, and there is ample parking (both lot and street) and restrooms. If you don't mind doing loops to get your workout in, and you're looking for a safe, exposed and bustling place to do it, Houge Park is a great option.

11. The Stevens Creek Trail and the Blackberry Farm (Captain Stephens) playground (Cupertino)

Some people don't realize that tucked behind the Blackberry Farm pool in Cupertino is a pretty cool and super shady (but very small) playground, built by the Ka'Boom folks. The structure is not a particularly toddler-friendly one, though there are plenty of things for toddlers to climb on and try to scale, but it's a nice diversion if you want to run/walk the trail between Blackberry Farm and McClellan Ranch. It's not a very long trail (maybe 1/2 mile?), though there's now a connection that goes along the golf course to Stevens Creek Boulevard to add a bit more distance. But with the ample parking in the Blackberry Farm pool lot, the playground behind the pool area, the allure of the creek (when it's flowing) and the fun 4H farm at McClellan Ranch (at the other end of the trail), this is a great option to get your heart pumping with your toddler.

Note that while the path between Blackberry Farm and McClellan Ranch is paved, there's an added loop at McClellan Ranch that is not, and it's not a great option for strollers, particularly double-wides (as we discovered when we went in there with two double-wide BOBS this spring), and definitely not for those without running stroller shocks.

Cruisin' on the trail at La Rinconada Park
in Los Gatos
12. The La Rinconada Park trail and playground (Los Gatos)

This isn't really a major workout option, as the trail isn't long at all -- maybe a 1/2 mile loop if I'm generous -- but it's a great way to tag on some cardiovascular activity to a playground trip. We love the playground at La Rinconada Park (particularly the shade!), and the little trail that extends from the edge of the park, along the other side of the creekbed, and back along the grass is a nice way to get your heart beating. The path on the far side of the creek is paved, but when you get back to the playground side, you're either walking in the grass or in the street. (And a big negative here -- no bathroom.)

A shady spot on the lower part of the trails
at Belgatos Park in Los Gatos
13. The Belgatos Park trails and playground (Los Gatos)

This is more a hiking option than a running option for most people due to the hills (those of you who can push a BOB up crazy inclines at full speed...well, I salute you). I actually haven't taken any of the hikes (we've been out and back a few hundred yards to check out the creek and the animals), but the playground is great and the trails that extend from the park look like nice options to tag on a workout to a playground visit.

14. Alum Rock Park trails and playground (San Jose/Alum Rock)

Those of you who followed my posts last weekend know that Alum Rock Park is one of my new favorite places in the world, and the combination of a fun playground in a gorgeous setting and LOTS of trails for running, walking or hiking is a good part of the reason why. Though you have to pay for parking here (unless you have a Happy Hollow parking pass) and it probably wouldn't be most people's daily workout, it's a great option for a weekend family walk, hike or run, or a planned outing with friends. The trail that goes along the creek is paved and the grade is mild to moderate, and while the lovely setting and available bathrooms will make parents happy, the toddlers will probably be most excited about the playgrounds (technically two, though the toddler one isn't all that impressive), the YSI animals, and the wide open lawns for running.

15. Emma Prusch Farm Park trail, playground and farm (San Jose)

Most people would not think of Emma Prusch as a great running venue, but we've hosted two Moms in Training workouts there, and it actually is quite nice. There is the playground (but be warned: it's almost laughably toddler UN-friendly, with a bouncy bridge that causes big spills for little people, lots of high spots, no baby swings and a toddler "structure" that most toddlers can't reach), but the bigger attraction for the kids will probably be the wandering chickens and roosters, then the farm animals in the kids' farm (potbellied pigs, goats you can feed (through a fence) and bunnies) and in the 4H farm (a rotating stock of large farm animals, like pigs, cows and sheep). The trail around the perimeter of the park -- around the back of the large lawn, then taking the far path around/through the heritage orchard -- comes out to just under 1/2 mile (about .45), with the bonus that you're never that far from bathrooms or spots a kid can run. Free admission and parking.

A Sad but True Warning

In a perfect world, all of the above-named trails would be wonderful workout options for moms or dads with toddlers, in a group or alone, any time of day and any day of the week. But, though I hate to say it, a mom alone with a young child is in a very vulnerable position, and putting yourself in that vulnerable position in an isolated setting is not a great idea. What makes several of these trails wonderful -- shade, peacefulness, a feeling of distance from the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley -- also makes them not-so-great options for a mom going out on her own with a toddler. I'm not trying to be a fear-monger, just realistic and cautious.

Before you hit any trail alone, visit the same trail with a friend at the same time of day and on the same day of the week to judge the crowds. For example, while parts of the Los Gatos Creek trail are pretty lonely and isolated at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, you won't go 10 feet without seeing a runner, walker or biker at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The same goes for the Los Alamitos trail, and probably several others. 

For me (and I'll admit, I am very cautious), I only visit trails that I know to be relatively wide-open (easy views in all directions almost all the time) or highly populated when I'm alone with Toddler X. The segment of the Los Gatos Creek Trail between Oak Meadow and the Vasona dam, for example, is pretty wide-open and generally well-populated; likewise the part of the trail from Campbell Park past the percolation ponds. I also usually feel comfortable at Shoreline during the day, as there are views in every direction and there are many people out walking. 

But for the most part, if I am going for a walk or run on a trail, I go with Mr. X or a friend, and if I need to work out alone, I head to the Rose Garden, River Glen Park or Houge Park for the nice, exposed trails that are the opposite of isolation.

Everyone has their own level of comfort with being alone on a trail, but I just want to be clear that I'm not vouching for the safety of any of these trails, but am instead just sharing those that I have enjoyed.

Okay, that's it for now. I actually have a bunch of other possibilities, but if I tried to get every single one down, I'd never get this post published. I'm always open to hearing your suggestions too, so please feel free to comment or message me.

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